Chapter OneSUMMER 2001
Katie's long hair, still dripping from her shower, dampened her white, terry-cloth robe she threw on before hurrying into the nursery. Katie had heard her daughter's cry as she dried herself off and rushed to get out of the bathroom, though it hadn't been an irritated sort of cry. It was more of an "I'm up and ready for breakfast. Where are you, Mama?" type. Pretty smart for a four-month-old, she'd thought.
"Good morning, Chloe."
Chloe kicked both her legs and flapped her arms, moving the old wooden crib with the motion of her tiny body. Her pink nightshirt had crept up to reveal the store brand diaper that was trimmed with alternating white baby lambs and yellow baby ducks. She greeted her mom with a big smile that lifted her cheeks enough to squint her eyes, and a delighted squeal escaped past the gurgle that, at first, wavered in her throat and caught her breath.
"You're in a good mood today," Katie observed. "Is my baby ready for her bottle?"
"Mm ... mm ..." Chloe answered, sucking in her lower lip. She squealed again, this time more solemnly and appearing to have a lot more to say.
"Oh, is that right?" Katie asked. "Well, how about sitting in your infant seat while I get dressed? Then I'll heat up your bottle and make your cereal. Does that sound good?"
Chloe flapped her arms again and blinked her bright blue eyes. She was beautiful. She had her father's mystical blue eyes, her mother's perfectly symmetrical nose, and pink, pouty lips. She didn't have much hair yet, but what was there was the color of golden honey and just as smooth.
Katie pushed the side rail down and lifted her daughter up from her crib. She swung the baby on her hip and wiped the drool from the corners of her tiny mouth with her thumb. Chloe opened her mouth wider and leaned forward.
"Okay, I get it," Katie said with a chuckle. "You're hungry, and I'm not moving fast enough." She cradled Chloe's head in her hand and pressed her lips onto the baby's full cheek.
Chloe stretched her chubby fingers and pinched her mother's nose, then moved on to examine the saturated strands of her mother's hair. She stared fixedly, attempting to free her hand, but only managed to coil the strands tighter and tighter till finally, she tugged and pulled, then let out a screech.
"Oh, sure. You scream. You're pulling my hair," Katie informed, freeing her hair from Chloe's fingers. She laughed and kissed her daughter's palm.
They went into the living room where Katie grabbed Chloe's car seat with her free hand before heading toward the large bedroom. July's bright morning sun was grinning smugly at the sheer panels and blanketing everything in its path with a fierce orange glow. Chloe's father had rolled onto his stomach, and his face and arms were buried under his pillow. Add to the list: Thicker curtains.
Chloe sat quietly in her seat as if she knew her dad needed his sleep. Katie got dressed as quickly as she could. A bra, panties, a pair of jean shorts, and one of her husband's old T-shirts.
She picked up her daughter, carseat and all, and went back into the living room to change her diaper. Thoroughly wet but not messy. Diapers. Always on the shopping list. That and formula. Everything Chloe ate or drank seemed to come right back out a few minutes later. Katie smiled, amused with the memory of a doll her parents had bought her for her fifth birthday.
Chloe took every spoonful of her baby cereal and drank all but the last two ounces of formula. She burped for her mother, leaving a spot of spit-up on the cloth resting on her mother's shoulder.
"That a girl," Katie said, wiping her baby's chin.
Chloe looked content. A full stomach and a dry bottom. For a little while anyway.
Katie laid Chloe down in her playpen and started a pot of coffee. She pulled one of the boxes off of the several stacks in the corner. It had been two weeks since they had moved into their new apartment, but they hadn't had time or energy to unpack everything. Mainly because Katie couldn't put anything away without reminiscing about a particular event it represented.
She knelt with the box in front of her and opened it like a small child opening a Christmas gift ... with sparkles in her eyes and anticipation written across her face. Ah ... pictures. She grinned. She turned the cover on the first album. It was a small one. Only a few photos fit in it, but it held a lot of memories. The first picture was of Maria Veldez, Toni Radliffe, and Kevin Foster.
Kevin looked like a Californian surfer with his longish blond hair and golden skin tone. But he'd never lived a day of his life in California. Nor had he ever been a surfer. His attitude toward life contradicted his outer appearance. Inwardly, he was more of a suit-and-tie type, burying himself in books and blocking out distractions as best as he could. His ambition for success and stability didn't let him look any other direction but forward.
Toni had dark auburn hair, green eyes that were big and round, and tiny freckles that seemed to multiply on her fair skin every summer. She was the dreamer. She felt safer, dreaming and losing herself in her imagination rather than stepping out through the clouds to get rained on. Especially after her parents separated, and her dad moved to New York. In a way, she felt, her whole life before that had been a dream. After graduating high school, she'd said, she finally woke up.
Maria liked to describe her hair color as dark chocolate. Just calling it black, she said, would be too boring. Maria didn't do "boring". Her motto was "If it feels good, do it! If it doesn't, screw it!" All through high school, she never limited herself whether it was experiencing a new high or trying out different techniques to get the guys to fall all over her. She usually left them panting and wanting more than she intended to give. Then she met Jake. She didn't set out to fall in love with him, but she did.
The three were posing in the middle of the University Courtyard with smiles on their faces and a glow about them that was unmistakably excitement. Katie recalled that excitement soon wore off.
Eighteen ... She smiled, suddenly feeling old, though she had just turned twenty-one in June. She, too, had felt the excitement. Along with it, however, fear and confusion.
In her playpen, Chloe had turned herself over and was on her belly, lifting her head to watch her mother through the mesh. She widened her smile, showing off her smooth gums when Katie looked back at her.
Katie smiled back at her daughter and sighed. She realized now that she had been in a hurry to grow up till it became that time to do so. Then she had wished she could stay a child, safely guided through the rest of her life.
She rummaged through the box for her wedding album. She opened it and ran her fingers over the first photo, smoothing the creases on the plastic cover. She had been hesitant to make her own choices. She'd always been afraid she might make the wrong ones. But there was one choice, she knew, had been the right one. She was happy where she was and with the direction in which her life was going. Most importantly, she was happy just being herself.
Chapter TwoFALL 1998
Most of the people had left the library. The only sounds were of pages flipping and the occasional cough from somewhere behind the shelves. Katie Parker stared unblinkingly at the page in her chemistry book. The words were out of focus, and the spaces between them made up an interesting design. The spot on her forehead that was resting on the palm of her hand was starting to get numb. Her elbow on the table had lost feeling a while earlier.
Chemistry wasn't one of Katie's best subjects. Not good since that's what she was majoring in. It took a lot of studying to keep what Mr. Wilson called a strong B in her junior year of high school. So far, in college, she'd received most of her assignments marked with a big red C, and sometimes, when Professor Rourke felt generous, a C+. Well, maybe it was more what she did or how she did it and not how the professor felt like grading, but it was easier to blame him than to think that, quite possibly, she just wasn't cut out for Pre-med.
Maria was sitting across from Katie with her chin resting in her hands and her eyes fixed on the notes in front of her. Toni, sitting next to Maria and across from Kevin, looked dazed as she turned a page in her book. Kevin looked tired, too, but didn't seem to let it bother him, going back and forth from his book to his notebook with a familiar expression. Katie remembered seeing it on her sister's face when she studied for any of her tests.
Carrie, four years older than Katie, was always more focused when it came to studying. Even in her junior year of high school when she got sick and had to miss classes for a whole semester. She had made it up the following summer and had caught up with the rest of her class.
Katie didn't find it as easy. She was secretly relieved her parents wouldn't allow her to move into a dorm. She wasn't ready.
"Living here at home will help you concentrate more on your classes and less on the hoopla," her dad had said, barely looking up from his newspaper.
By "hoopla", Mr. Parker meant parties with the college boys. "I was eighteen once," he had announced. "And learning wasn't always the first priority. In fact, when the guys got together, studying was the furthest from our minds."
Katie wanted to tell him that high school was no different, but she decided to keep it to herself. He didn't need to know. After all, she got through it. Still a virgin ... No problems here.
She wondered why her dad hadn't been more concerned about Carrie. Carrie's appearance was that of a certain famous doll every little girl probably dreamt of looking like. All five feet and ten inches of her, including her ample bosom and her long slender legs had made Katie feel insignificant in the past. The color of Carrie's hair mimicked the rays of the afternoon sun and her eyes were as brilliant as her March birthstone. Guys flocked around her wherever she went.
Katie had to remind herself from time to time that she was no ugly duckling either. Great hair. Hers was no longer blond as it used to be, but it was in much better condition than Carrie's. She had deep brown eyes that was said to warm a person's heart with their innocence, and she may have been a bit thin, but still, well-proportioned. Easy on the eyes-as she had heard one uncle say about his new wife.
It was two months after the initial excitement of starting classes at the university had worn off. The enthusiasm they had felt about being adults and taking charge of their own lives had faded.
Katie and her friends had been studying for their first big test in Chemistry. They'd been sitting at the same table since two that Saturday afternoon. From the hollow feeling in her stomach, Katie guessed it was getting late. She'd only had a bagel for lunch and a cup of coffee with Kevin before they had met up with Toni and Maria.
Toni was the first one to admit she had had enough. "Tell me again," she said, sitting back in her chair. She stretched her legs under the table and rubbed her eyes with her palms. "Why am I doing this?"
"If you don't bring your GPA up, you'll have to come up with your tuition yourself," Kevin offered dryly. He didn't look up from his notes. He barely changed his expression. His eyes were focused on the pages as if they were determinedly absorbing the words into his brain.
"I'm ready for a break," Katie said, pushing her chair back. She stood up and walked around in a circle to get the circulation back in her legs.
Maria gave her book a light shove across the table. "I never studied this hard in high school," she whined. "This bites!"
Toni yawned. "Well, I don't know about you guys, but I can't look at another formula. The letters are starting to float off the page." She threw her notes in between the pages of her book and slammed it shut. "I'm going home."
"Ditto," Maria said with one hand on her stomach. "I'm starving!"
"What time is it?" asked Katie.
Maria rummaged through her backpack for her beeper. "Shit! It's past eight. I told Jake I would call him by seven." She flew up from her chair and lifted her backpack from the floor.
"I thought you guys broke up," Toni said, gathering her things.
"That was last week," Kevin teased, finally lifting his head.
Maria's pen went flying and landed on Kevin's open book.
Just in time, Kevin jerked and moved his hands to avoid getting hit. "A little touchy, aren't you?" He laughed.
"Can't you call him right now?" Katie asked.
Maria was busy throwing her things into her backpack and didn't respond. Katie had never seen her so flustered. Maria wasn't one to let things bother her. She was more outspoken than the rest of them, and more carefree. She usually shrugged things off.
"See you guys tomorrow," Maria said, swinging her backpack on her shoulder. She gave a half-smile, then grabbed her coat.
"Bye, Maria," Katie returned.
Katie and Kevin exchanged glances and shrugged.
"Call me later if you can," Toni said after her.
They watched Maria walk hastily between the rows of deserted tables, past the computers, then disappear down the wooden stairs.
Katie shifted her eyes toward Toni, asking with her expression before she actually asked. "What's going on there?"
"I don't know," Toni replied, sounding annoyed. "She said she was going to break it off with Jake. He's been acting different lately."
"Different ... in what way?" Katie asked.
"More angry, I guess," Toni said. "Jealous ... Possessive."
"Maybe if she would stop flirting with every guy she meets," Kevin suggested, flicking a look of disapproval into the air.
"Shut up, Kevin!" Toni said, clipping her words. "You don't know what you're talking about."
"All I'm saying is that I'd be upset too if I had a girlfriend who didn't take our relationship as seriously as I did."
Katie sat back down, folding one leg beneath her. "She's been going out with him for over a year. Why is he being so paranoid all of a sudden? It's not like she's changed."
"That's why I'm sticking with Lance," Toni said sleepily. "I'm going to soak in a hot bubble bath, put on some music, and enjoy him in my mind."
"Lance?" Kevin looked up at her, pushing at the floor with the toes of his sneakers and balancing on the back legs of his chair.
"He's that guy she saw in the cafeteria the other day. She doesn't know his name so she gave him one," Katie explained.
"I don't get it. Why didn't you ask him what his name is?" Kevin asked Toni, appearing genuinely confused.
"I don't want to talk to him," Toni said clearly. "That would make him too real. Right now, he says and does everything right. Less headache that way."
Kevin shook his head, apparently deciding against trying to defend the entire male population. "I don't understand you girls."
Toni laughed. "That's just it. None of you do."
Katie wondered if that was true. If every guy was totally clueless. Clueless, demanding, controlling, and looking for one thing? Toni had a point. It was a lot easier leaving her dream guy as just that. A dream.
Chapter ThreeKatie stopped at a restaurant on the way home, now more hungry than tired. She parked her little red Escort her parents had bought her for high school graduation between a sharp-looking sports car and a newer-model minivan that could've been parked better between the lines.
The parking lot to the restaurant was well lit, and the building was surrounded by an impressive landscape. The grass that once boasted a healthy green, however, was starting to hide behind patches of brown. Dry, crisp leaves that had fallen from nearby trees covered the sidewalk leading to the entrance as well as the neatly trimmed bushes along the sides.
The dry leaves flew by her side windows as the wind whistled through the parking lot. She looked in her rearview mirror, running her fingers through her hair. Long and straight, it ran well past her shoulders and halfway down her upper arm. It was neither brown nor blond. It was somewhere in between, gradually getting darker, year after year, for as far back as she could remember.